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Burnt Out On Fire Suppression

Walking through the chalky gray ashes and charred remains of the lifeless shrub forest that spans the canyons and slopes of North Cow Mountain, the peak of which is roughly eight miles northeast of Ukiah, it is hard to imagine anything ever growing here again. This is the site of the “Scotts Fire,” which raged across 9,000 acres of this Bureau of Land Management-owned terrain this past September. Fueled by several 100-degree days and relatively strong winds, the fire started in a canyon where Goatrock Campground is located on September 7th, quickly running up the ridges through dry brush and vegetation, and torching chamise, manzanita, and blue oaks like so many matchsticks.

It is December now, and the bases of charred shrubs poke out of the ground, scratching the limbs of any passerby who fails to exercise caution in maneuvering through them. The ashy soil is littered in some parts with flakes split off of boulders – proof of the intensity of the recent heat.

In spite of the bleak and silent setting of grays and blacks, this scene actually represents the beginning of one of Mama Earth's most fascinating cycles of death and renewal. It is only a temporary stage in a complex series of miraculous events in which the original vegetation will gradually renew itself. With the arrival of the late fall rains, green leaves and shoots have started to emerge. Upon close examination, they are coming from deep subterranean woody stumps that the fires were unable to touch: features that these trees and shrubs have developed across millions of years to adapt to regular fires.

The landscapes of California, as with similar Mediterranean-type climates throughout the world, have been shaped for millions of years by frequent blazes. Ecologist Richard Vogl has estimated that fire has had a fundamental role in selecting three-fourths of California's native vegetation. Its role in shaping plant and animal life has been ever bit as profound as the other three primary elements: soil, water, and wind.

Owing in part to propaganda efforts such as the US Forest Service's decades-long “Smokey the Bear” ad campaign, burns are commonly associated in the public mind almost entirely with destruction (“propaganda does not thrive on close distinctions,” as the saying goes). Fire actually performs numerous crucial ecological functions, however, as the vast majority of people have realized for the vast majority of human existence.

In oak woodlands, for example, fire removes oak leaves and litter, opens up the soil so that plants can grow faster, helps to control harmful insects and diseases, improves wildlife habitat by (for example), removing brush from springs, and recycles nutrients from the litter into the soil. Many landscapes — including the oak savannahs, coastal prairies, and dry chaparral that characterize much of inland Mendocino County — depend on fire for their well-being. Although the intensity of the “Scotts Fire” was much greater than what is actually healthy due to years of fire suppression that have caused an unnatural build-up of fuel loads, the landscape of North Cow Mountain is one of those.

US federal fire policy throughout the 20th century focused entirely on suppressing all fires on national forests, with the stated goal of protecting timber “resources” and homes in rural areas. The Forest Service was created in 1905 to manage the nation’s forest reserves and soon thereafter adopted a nation-wide policy of fire suppression. Fire historian Stephen Pyne notes that in the early years, the Forest Service needed to prove its qualifications. Many foresters at the time recognized the value of “light burning” to clear out understory vegetation, but the Forest Service wanted to set itself apart from this common practice of rural farmers and American Indians.

“The Forest Service had insisted that it should manage the forest reserves precisely because it offered something different from frontier practices,” Pyne concludes.

It is a sad irony these policies have enhanced the damage caused by catastrophic fires in the name of fighting fire. Grasses, shrubs, and saplings in forest understories that would have naturally burned in frequent low-intensity blazes have been allowed to grow up, forming fuel ladders through which flames can climb to the forest canopy, killing entire forest stands. Millions of acres have grown up to be outdoor kindling piles, ready to ignite with the flick of a match.

The principle involved is quite straightforward. You cannot kindle a fireplace log with matches alone. You set paper and kindling in place, and only then can you ignite the log with a single match. By preventing the accumulation of kindling underneath timber stands, people can eliminate the danger of catastrophic wildfire.

It wasn’t until 1970 that the Forest Service publicly acknowledged either the ecological importance of fire or the safety advantages of frequent low-intensity burning. It began allowing some fires to burn under accepted weather conditions. In 1978, the Forest Service officially abandoned its policy that required all fires to be extinguished as quickly as possible, with Congress repealing the Forest Fires Emergency Act.

Yet, increasing numbers of homes in the “wildland-urban interface” bordering forested lands have developed across the last century. “A new ‘fire-dependent’ class of government agencies and private corporations has accumulated enormous power and profits from firefighting” since fighting fire enjoys widespread support from businesses, property owners, Congress, and the Forest Service itself. Only a small percentage of fires are allowed to burn unfettered on national forests. Although it is commonly estimated that fire suppression costs 20 times more than frequent low-intensity burning, fire suppression as a default policy still dominates most of the country.

The combination of global climate change, increased fuel loads on landscape floors, and the spread of diseases in trees have combined to make the issue of fire management far more pressing, and perilous, than ever before. Nationwide (but mostly in the West), wildfires burned an average of 6.9 million acres per year from 2002-2011, according to a study by the National Interagency Fire Center, almost double the average acreage of the previous decade. The all-time record for most acreage burned occurred in 2006. The year 2007 ran a close second.

Every year, as fuel loads continue to pile up and temperatures throughout most of the country increase, the dangers of catastrophic fires correspondingly increase.

The relationship of human beings to fire in this part of the world used to be fundamentally different. For millennia, California's First Nations people used small, controlled burns as a cornerstone of their land management practices. In her seminal 2006 book Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources, UC Davis ethnoecologist M. Kat Anderson notes, “Fire was the most significant, effective, efficient, and widely employed vegetation management tool of California Indian tribes. The slow match gave them the technological capability to burn both small patches and extensive tracts of vegetation in a systematic fashion.”

The frequency of low-intensity brush fires, whether from lightning or controlled burning by the Natives, made the land both more healthy and more beautiful. The famous botanist and horticulturalist Carl Purdy, on an 1879 stagecoach ride from Petaluma to Ukiah, observed: “Brush fires had kept the hillsides open, cultivation did not cover much of the land, and we passed through a long succession of wild flower gardens. There were masses of a single flower covering acres, or even at times, hundreds of acres.”

He continued, “This wonderful flower show was surpassed only by that vast one that John Muir described as adorning all of the uplands of the great interior valleys of the San Joaquin and Sacramento. That was a circuit of a thousand miles of bloom.”

Speaking at a California Indian Basketweavers Association conference near Santa Rosa in September, Kat Anderson described humans' role vis-a-vis fires like this: “Hummingbirds can't set fires. Badgers can't set fires. So, Indians say, 'That's our responsibility as humans, to set frequent low-intensity fires. And people have relinquished that responsibility, in the name of avoiding catastrophic fires’.”

The strange dichotomy between the scientific prowess of many contemporary humans and their inability to relate to fire in a healthy way is perhaps best illustrated by a famous wildfire that occurred in May of 2000, when a burn on Cerro Grande Mountain, deep in the Bandelier National Monument of Northern New Mexico, escaped Forest Service control. Although the federal and state governments mobilized immense amounts of fire-fighting machinery and personnel, the flames raged across the New Mexican highlands for over one month until contained. They soon burned through the epicenter of the United States' nuclear weapons program: the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). This is the only facility in the country outfitted to manufacture plutonium pits, the explosive cores of thermo-nuclear weapons.

The disastrous potential then was enormous. Spread across 43 square miles, LANL is made up of dozens of "technical areas." Many of these technical areas were the sites of toxic and radioactive experimentation throughout the Cold War, and deadly materials are scattered about the lab’s soil, concentrated in the canyons by runoff, and bioaccumulated in some vegetation. The fire torched over 100 lab buildings. Many assumed the worst.

When news broke that Cerro Grande was torching Lab property, burning buildings to the ground, downwind communities such as San Ildefonso and Santa Clara Peublos, and Santa Fe panicked, assuming that radioactive and toxic fallout was headed toward them in volatile clouds of ash and smoke. Worse still was the fear that one of LANL’s nuclear waste dumps, such as Area G, might be blazing, lifting huge concentrations of radioactivity into the atmosphere.

These worst-case scenarios apparently never took place. They also didn't materialize in 2011, when another massive blaze called the La Concha fire again burned through Los Alamos. Events like these, though, have combined to make controlled burning political anathema in some areas of the country. Yet, through careful and reasonable management of public and private lands, they could easily be averted. Human beings have figured out how to split the atom and produce thermo-nuclear fireballs capable of consuming entire cities in a matter of seconds, but now the political inertia is too great for them to develop a sane policy around controlled burning – at least here in the United States.

In Mendocino County, people have weathered a disproportionate number of wildfires in recent years, including a record number in 2008 — the so-called Lightning Fires Complex. A handful of other massive blazes took place this past year. Over the next month, as the deep of winter sets in – a time for reflection on the year just past – I'll publish a pair of articles in these pages looking in-depth at the fascinating but, until now, little-known history of fire and fire suppression on the California North Coast. I'll also look at how that history relates to federal and state policies, and who is on the front lines locally working to change these policies.

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